Last week, conservative talk radio personality Rush Limbaugh died at age 70. Limbaugh’s nationally syndicated political show first hit the airwaves in the late 1980s. He was beloved by many who shared or later adopted his political views and his penchant for conspiracy theories. Many of his critics, however, pointed out his cruel and crass remarks.
Limbaugh’s legacy was hardly limited to politics. In a tribute to him, one Christian leader wrote for USA Today, that “ Christian talk programs in particular wouldn't even exist today were it not for Limbaugh's success. Christian radio would still be limited to sermons and songs. But instead, radio stations realized the benefit of capturing even a slice of Limbaugh's audience share and offered new hosts and new voices opportunities to join a new, more democratic discussion of the issues.”
Mark Ward Sr. is associate professor of communication at the University of Houston-Victoria in Victoria, Texas. His books include The Electronic Church in the Digital Age, Air of Salvation: The Story of Christian Broadcasting, and The Lord’s Radio: Gospel Music Broadcasting and the Making of Evangelical Culture.
Ward joined global media manager Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen on Quick to Listen to discuss Limbaugh’s impact on Christian radio, how Christian radio differs from Christian TV, and how the medium does or not does not make the message.
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Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #253
What should people who are not familiar with radio know about Rush Limbaugh?
Mark Ward: The Rush Limbaugh Show went on air in 1988 into national syndication. The reason that the year 1988 is so important is that it was right after a very important event in government regulation of the media. To give perspective, anyone can own the paper to print a magazine like Christianity Today, but the airwaves are public property, like a street or a sidewalk.
The airwaves are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission or the FCC at the beginning of the 1940s. The FCC had a regulation that was called the Fairness Doctrine. The Fairness Doctrine said that “Broadcasters, if you're going to use the publicly-owned airwaves, then it's okay for you to air editorials or opinion programs, but you have to give equal time at no charge to anyone who requests equal time for an opposing viewpoint.” In 1987, the FCC repealed the Fairness Doctrine.
Within a year, in 1988, Rush Limbaugh was on the air with The Rush Limbaugh Show and radio stations could air his talk without having to worry about giving equal time to opposing viewpoints. For that reason, Rush Limbaugh became the most listened-to program in radio with more than 15 million listeners and heard on more than 600 stations. Essentially, he became the father of what we call CTR or conservative talk radio, the father of what scholars now call the conservative media establishment: Fox News and all the rest, as well as what has been called the outrage industry.
When Rush came on the air in 1988, there were only three major broadcast networks and they allegedly reported the news with a supposedly liberal bias. Rush Limbaugh gave conservatives what they saw as their own alternative media outlet.
What did the industry look like before Rush Limbaugh?
Mark Ward: The Fairness Doctrine was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1969 in the famous landmark decision. But by then the FCC was starting to slack off a bit in enforcing the Fairness Doctrine. There were some Christian conservative talk shows before Rush Limbaugh.
Some of your older subscribers might remember Talk Back with Bob Larson and his sensational interviews. He went into syndication on more than 200 stations in 1982. Marlon Maddoux with Point of View, a conservative issue-oriented call-in program, was also syndicated on more than 200 stations and debuted in 1983.
To me, the real turning point was the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. This is important because as recently as the 1980s, no one broadcaster could own any more than 40 radio stations. With the passage of the Telecom Act in 1996, suddenly they eliminated any national cap on how many radio stations any one broadcaster could own. Overnight, the radio industry and Christian radio became consolidated as large media conglomerates bought up radio stations left and right.
Before the consolidation of Christian radio into a few large networks, it was mostly locally owned mom-and-pop radio stations with weak signals, often AM stations in smaller unranked media markets. They operated on the basis of “a dollar for a holler”: they would sell radio airtime to anyone willing to buy it, to any preacher. With the consolidation of the radio industry, these religious-sounding old-time radio programs just couldn't make it. If you didn't have a big name as a preacher, if you didn't have the kind of money to pay the rates demanded by the networks, if you didn't have the kind of production values that could draw an audience, then you couldn't get on the air.
A study was done in 2012 on Rush Limbaugh and what he spoke about. Rush talked about moral and cultural issues less than 5% of the time. He talked about economic issues 50% of the time and foreign affairs 12% of the time. What was Christian radio before the Rush Limbaugh era? An eclectic mix of a “dollar for a holler” religious-sounding radio shows.
What was the impact of preachers like Robert Schuller and his political preaching?
Mark Ward: Robert Schuller was the pastor Trinity Methodist Church South in Los Angeles. In 1926 they got a license to broadcast over the radio. Robert Schuller immediately had these electrifying sermons in which he would just go after, in vitriolic terms, corruption among city politicians. His broadcast led to the sacking of the Los Angeles city police chief. He was sued for libel by the mayor of Los Angeles. He also went after Jews. He went after Catholics. He went after other evangelicals.
In 1931 the predecessor of the FCC, the Federal Radio Commission, revoked his license because they said that this kind of broadcasting did not, as it says in the statute, serve the public interest, convenience, and necessity.
Robert Schuller got the ACLU to take his case to the Supreme Court on free speech grounds. The Supreme Court ruled in 1932 that a broadcaster does not have a right to a license and that the interests of the public supersede those of the broadcaster.
If radio became a forum for public controversy and vitriol, offending the sensibilities of the public, then as the Supreme Court justices ruled, radio, rather than being a boon to the nation, would be a scourge.
It's interesting to compare that with today because the FCC since probably about the 1970s, certainly with the Reagan era in the 1980s, has taken a different view of what's fair on the air and essentially with the proliferation of different media. We have not just AM radio, which they only had at the time of Schuller, but FM radio, satellite radio, cable TV, satellite TV, and now the internet and social media.
The argument was made that nobody can monopolize the airwaves. So why should we have these kinds of regulations with the FCC policing what's said over the air? Today we have Rush Limbaugh. We have the outrage industry and networks like Salem Media Group or American Family Radio every day broadcasting very conservative political opinions with essentially unfettered access to the airwaves.
For a time, networks refused to sell time to the more fundamentalist preachers, but they then made a deal to the more liberal preachers of the Federal Council of Churches. What is the significance of this?
Mark Ward: This is where we can bring in the metaphor, which is often called “the magic bullet theory of media” or “the hypodermic needle” theory of media. Back in the day with leaders like Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Franklin Roosevelt, or Winston Churchill it was believed that all you had to do was broadcast mass communication via radio to the masses. It would be like a magic bullet; the masses would be swayed. There was so much trepidation that this power to use this magic bullet could be misused.
Fundraising over the air was very controversial in the 1920s and 30s as radio was getting off the ground, so the major networks at the time, NBC and CBS, which came on the air in 1927, adopted policies where they would not sell airtime for religious programs, because if they did, then the preachers would have to raise money on the air to pay for airtime. Also, the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925 made fundamentalists rather unpopular and controversial.
Instead, the networks said, rather than sell time, we're going to donate time for free as a public service to the representative bodies of the major faiths. It included the Federal Council of Churches, the forerunner of the National Council. But because evangelicals had no central body of their own and weren't members of the Federal Council, they didn't get any airtime and were shut out until the upstart Mutual Broadcasting System came on the air in 1934. They sold time to preachers so that they could compete with the established networks. That's when you got shows like Charles Fuller's Old Fashioned Revival Hour heard over Mutual on more than 400 stations and at its peak claimed an audience of 20 million weekly listeners, which is astounding even by today.
When radio came on, the only model that people had for mass evangelism was the old city-wide crusades, like Dwight Moody or Billy Sunday. People like Charles Fuller essentially adopted the format of the Revival or Tabernacle meeting to the airwaves.
You've got an opening theme, testimony, a short, punchy sermon, and then a closing theme. Fast forward to the 1950s and 60s and the two leading Christian broadcasters. Billy Graham had The Hour of Decision that was on about 800 stations. Billy James Hargis had the Christian Crusade radio program on about 600 stations. In the 1950s and 60s, Carl McIntire had the Twentieth Century Reformation Hour on about 500 stations. But the difference between then and today is that when Billy James Hargis or Carl McIntire went on air on 600 stations, these were mostly small, locally owned radio stations in small rural markets, AM stations with weak signals not allowed to broadcast after sunset.
They had to purchase time one local station at a time. Billy James Hargis and Carl McIntire didn't have control over what time of day their program was going to be aired, what other programs their programs are going to be next to. Today, with the rise of Christian radio consolidation, where it's controlled by a few large networks, you're able to have the same talk program broadcast nationwide at the same time to the audience, which magnifies the opportunities for the Christian right to be able to use radio to get its message out to the faithful. This is again due to the consolidation of the radio industry since the mid-1990s.
How has Christian radio’s influence been measured over the years? Has it peaked in terms of its influence or has it been more dynamic over time?
Mark Ward: In 2005, the Barna Group, a Christian polling firm, conducted a survey and they found that more people consume electronic or print religious media in any given month than attend church.
One out of every five American adults consumes some form of religious media print or electronic daily. Christian radio and Christian TV were the two leading responses. A study was done by an ethnographer in 2014 comparing U.S. evangelical churches and Canadian evangelical churches. In Canadian evangelical churches, evangelical identity was not associated with a particular political partisan identity, whereas in the United States evangelical identity is tied with a conservative Republican partisan identity.
She said that the reason was that unlike in Canada, the Christian right in the United States has an electronic church, has the vehicles of mass communication to get its message out to the people in the pews. If you want audience numbers that are easier on the music side with Christian contemporary music. The Christian adult contemporary radio format flirts with being one of the top 10 formats by national audience share. It’s even higher than that when it comes to audience share among females. By one measure, religious teaching talk is the third largest by the number of stations. But religious teaching talk is way down the list when it comes to national audience share.
But if you take all of the religious radio formats: teaching talk and religious music, then religion is number one by the number of stations and number one with national audience share. When you add all those up that's more than 3000 full-power AM and FM radio stations, which is about one out of every five radio stations.
That’s a considerable influence. The business model for commercial Christian radio has never been about selling advertising. It's about selling program time to preachers and Christian talk programs. The reason for that is that Christian radio can't compete for ratings. They are selling geographic coverage. After that, the radio preachers and syndicated Christian radio programs judge the effectiveness of a station by listener response and listener donations.
Digital media is not replacing Christian radio but augmenting its reach. This is essentially a white evangelical genre. White evangelicals got into station ownership while you could still afford to do so. But after the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the only ones that were in a position to be one of those consolidators and build a big network were the white radio and TV station owners.
There were already into the medium. Consolidation has locked in white evangelical ownership of this genre we call Christian radio and Christian TV. Back in 2016, I did a study and I found that the ownership and the leadership of the major evangelical radio and TV networks were virtually all white.
Could you elaborate on the lack of opportunities given to new hosts and new voices?
Mark Ward: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously and correctly said that the most segregated hour in America is 11:00 AM Sunday. That is true also of religious radio and television. In Christian radio, the only nationally syndicated African American preacher that I know is Tony Evans.
I have colleagues that have studied Christian music radio and they did focus groups of fans of contemporary Christian music and fans of gospel music from the African American church tradition. They found a real disconnect in that they did not know each other's artists. They did not listen to each other's music and did not react positively to each other's music. You find in religious radio that there is one community, essentially a white community that listens to contemporary Christian music. There is an entirely different community that listens to gospel music from the African American church tradition.
How do the economics of Christian radio differ from the economics of Christian TV?
Mark Ward: Yeah. As a scholar of media and media studies, the famous Marshall McLuhan quotation “The medium makes the message” is something that I have pondered and studied as it applies to what we call Christian radio and television.
I have been following Christian radio and television for 40-plus years. One of the major changes that I have seen between then and now is that on the one hand, Christian radio is dominated by conservative evangelicals and Christian television is dominated by Pentecostals and charismatics.
Conservative evangelicals prefer the aural qualities of radio as being more conducive to a more conversational or lecturing style of teaching and talk. On the other hand, Pentecostals and charismatics dominate Christian television because they prefer the visual properties of television for a more performative, more experiential style of preaching, and yes, megachurch spectacle. Indeed, the medium is the message.
So why is it that evangelicals will scoff at professionally credentialed experts and they'll take Ken Ham's word on evolution, they'll take David Barton's word on American history, they'll take James Dobson's word on child psychology? It's like those products that would boast As Seen On TV. The fact that simply being on Christian radio or Christian TV gives the impression that you're important and you have something worth saying, by a special work of the Holy Spirit to speak for God. The medium is the message has a tremendous impact on this genre that we call Christian radio and Christian television.
How did Christian radio use Salem Media Group to legitimize their preachers?
Mark Ward: Salem Media Group is sort of the architect of the evangelical media conglomerate to a digital age denomination because Salem does for evangelicals who are often independent, virtually everything that a traditional denomination does.
Salem is a single source for religious education and devotional materials, electronic and print. They're a single source for professional journals and teaching resources for pastors. Leaders worship leaders. They're even a source where you can buy church furniture, choir, robes, and communion cups.
They're a lot more than one dominant player in Christian radio. For example, their web network generates more than 100 million monthly app sessions. They are a publicly-traded company on the New York Stock Exchange, so they have to make their annual report available.
They had annual revenues of more than a quarter of a billion dollars. Here's where we get to a really basic fact of media economics: size matters. A network of size inherently has the advantages of scale because it costs a lot of money to produce or to acquire media programming.
But once you've paid that high first cost, then it's a relatively low cost to expand distribution. For example, Christianity Today would probably have pretty much similar printing costs whether you printed 500 copies, 5,000, or 50,000. It's the same in radio and television.
Once you pay that high first cost to produce or acquire the content, your costs are about the same whether you put it out on five stations, 50 or 500, or you stream it on demand to millions more media consumers.
Salem Media Group was founded by two men, Ed Singer and Stuart Epperson, who owned some Christian radio stations in California and North Carolina. As the FCC started in the late 80s and the early 90s to gradually increase the number of stations that you could get together, and with the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, shortly after in 1999 they went public to raise capital to buy radio stations. Within a very short time, they became the nation’s third largest in the top 25 largest media markets.
They're not buying little AM's with weak signals in small markets. They are buying AM and FM stations with strong signals in the nation's major cities and media markets where most people live. This is where Rush Limbaugh may have some influence on Christian radio.
In the 2000s, Salem started branching out from Christian radio into having stations formatted with conservative talk radio, and they have several conservative talk programs. The last time that I looked, Salem conservative talk programs had more listeners than Laura Ingraham or Don Imus.
Salem has become a very important player in conservative politics. They bought Townhall.com, which is the leading conservative web community. They bought two of the leading conservative blogs, RedState and Hot Air.
They bought the leading conservative book publisher. They bought the leading conservative book club. They bought the leading conservative newspaper. CNN reported a few years back that Salem was pressuring its talk show hosts to be pro-Trump and it purged the writers in their blogs because Salem was going in more of a pro-Trump direction.
The upside to consolidation is that production values are higher and more people are listening. But the flip side is that the diversity of religious radio voices and local religious voices are crowded off the air.
Essentially, what you hear on Christian radio has been homogenized. The same big-name preachers and talk shows that are heard on Christian radio are everywhere you go. It's the same with Christian music. When it comes to Salem, the religious media voices that are heard every day by millions of religious Americans are ultimately determined by a corporation that is effectively controlled by only four people.
Is there a possibility for podcasts to change the Christian audio space?
Mark Ward: Syndicators, big-name preachers, big-name talk shows have seen the future and they are into podcasting and on-demand streaming.
We have huge media corporations and huge media ministries that have experience in producing content fresh every day. Content is still king. Who has the experience in producing fresh, compelling content every day? It's your traditional Christian radio and television broadcasters. With consolidation, they not only have the experience, but they also have the deep pockets to be able to drive traffic to their podcasts, their digital media platforms, and their streaming apps.
American evangelicals have invested in a vast electronic church infrastructure in radio alone, with more than 3000 full-power AM and FM stations. It's not going away. They have every incentive to leverage that investment and to use the technology for increasing their reach.
Being a traditional broadcaster, a large media conglomerate, a massive media ministry, you have this critical mass where you're able to leverage the new technology in the way that one-off podcasters can't compete. The advent of podcasting and digital media doesn’t replace Christian radio but augments it.
What is the biggest challenge for Christian radio in the coming years?
Mark: The biggest threat, and not just for Christian radio but for white evangelicals generally, is that the Christian right has this mass communication infrastructure to get its message out to the masses. In my view, because evangelicals have associated their brand with the last four years of politics, they have associated their brand with the name of Donald Trump. This is going to tarnish that brand for years or even generations to come.
Some millennials won't listen to a gospel presentation because you support a guy that is all about creating division and hatred. So why should I listen to you? What I have seen over the last four or five years, particularly in Christian radio news talk, is this brand association of the message with this particular brand of politics with this particular authoritarian leader. That is a threat to the Christian message that is a threat to the gospel witness.